Archive for September, 2010

I Continue to Read Books

Tuesday, September 28th, 2010

I remain frustrated by David Rakoff. In his Fresh Air interview, he mentioned that his new book is more personal than the previous two, so when it arrived shortly after pub day (thanks, Mom!) I was hopeful that he might delve at least a little into his, well, feelings. Not least because Rakoff is in the middle of a bout with a soft-tissue sarcoma and is (ack, ack, and triple ack) in danger of losing both shoulder and arm.

When I heard him talking to Terry, I thought, I can only imagine the terror—and indeed, I can only imagine it, because Rakoff isn’t giving it up, at least not publicly.

Of course, no writer (or person) is obliged to publicly disclose his deepest feelings, but then why write an essay on having cancer? He does say some very pointed things about illness and death, most of them gleaned from having laid many friends to rest during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Rakoff has something of a no-bullshit policy on the randomness of disease (Why me? –> Why not me?), which I appreciate, and he makes it clear that nobody defeats death merely by wanting to live. (THANK you.) But . . . I can’t find Rakoff almost anywhere in the book. As per usual, he’s always dancing over the Thing Beneath.

What is kind of shocking and disturbing for me is that he knows it.

In the penultimate essay, Rakoff flashes back to the day, ten years after starting, when he is seven weeks away from ending therapy (analysis, really—which, huge difference, and perhaps not a small part of the problem). When his analyst asks him how he feels about leaving, Rakoff turns the question around and asks his analyst how he feels. The analyst is angry—not that Rakoff has turned the tables but that he’s leaving. “How dare you?” he asks. “You should at least have to come have coffee with me once a week.” When Rakoff asks him if he feels this way about most of his patients, he says no. This is what Rakoff writes next (parentheses his):

(Sigh. Should you happen to be possessed of a certain verbal acuity coupled with a relentless, hair-trigger humor and surface cheer spackling over a chronic melancholia and loneliness—a grotesquely caricatured version of your deepest Self which you trot out at the slightest provocation to endearing and glib comic effect, thus rendering you the kind of fellow who is beloved by all yet loved by none, all of it to distract, however fleetingly, from the cold and dead-faced truth that with each passing year you face the unavoidable certainty of a solitary future in which you will perish one day while vainly attempting the Heimlich maneuver on yourself over the back of a kitchen chair—then this confirmation that you have triumphed again and managed to gull yet another mark, except this time it was the one person you’d hoped might be immune to your ever-creakier, puddle-shallow, sideshow-barker variation on “adorable,” even though you’d been launching this campaign weekly with a single-minded concentration from day one . . . well, it conjures up feelings that are best described as mixed, to say the least.)

What? WHAT?

First of all, I think this is the most important paragraph that Rakoff has ever written. This, to me, is where I can start to feel him—although, naturally, he’s written it in the second person. And it’s an aside! And then, Rakoff KNOWS it? He knows that he’s performing? And he . . . keeps doing it? I mean, sure, we all see destructive patterns in ourselves without knowing how to remedy them, but Rakoff never mentions wanting to stop. Nor (in ten years!) having asked his analyst to help him stop. Nor noticing a connection between the avoiding and the loneliness. As in, those feelings he so desperately wants to divert us from might be alleviated if . . . he would stop diverting.

Sigh. Has nobody told him these things? Not even his analyst?

In film news, Herb and Dorothy is just as delightful as reported. Highly recommended. But one thing: How is it that nobody in the movie ever mentions hoarding? Because hoarders these two would appear to be, albeit in the service of art.

More on Solar

Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010

The other day I was mulling the title, and the book sort of sank into place for me. As in, I got what McEwan is saying. I got what the book is about.

And it’s, like, lip-smackingly delicious, in a nihilistic way. It’s a real depths-of-the-soul-pleaser if you’re not terribly optimistic about humans, or at least about their (our) capability for reality-based thinking and responsible behavior. And it made me like the novel quite a lot. Quite a big lot, in fact.

I don’t want to tell you, because it would ruin things if you haven’t read it. But if you have, let’s discuss.

September Culture Survey

Monday, September 20th, 2010

One excellent local show—In the Wound, at John Hinkel Park—and one very good one: Compulsion, at the Berkeley Rep.

I gave John The Bad Attitude about the former, having been warned that it was a retelling of The Iliad, one of my least favorite epics. (“He fell, and his armor clattered upon him.”) But it’s exceptionally well done, and smart, and moving. And memorable. With a lot to say about war, and a few other things. Though mostly war. LOVED Odysseus in a business suit, pure tactician. And the three goddesses on Taiko drums.

There’s a second part, Of the Earth, playing in December, and guess who’s going to that? This time without the attitude?

Compulsion has an intelligent script and a stellar cast (Mandy Patinkin included). I was not quite as gripped by the issues involved, but that’s likely a personal preference and not a statement about the strength of the play.

In film, I Netflixed A Single Man, most of which I ended up not seeing, because a) my eyes were rolled too far into the back of my head to catch what was happening on the screen, and b) I resorted to FFing in nearly every scene. People liked this movie? Colin Firth is fantastic, sure, but he has so little to work with! And every precious little art-directed-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life moment is so laborious and attenuated!

It reminded me of the work of all those self-styled freshman indie auteurs which, as a reviewer, I used to have to endure. And I guess technically that’s what Tom Ford is. But couldn’t he have found a better writer? Or, um, co-writer?

While I’m complaining, let’s have a word about Radiolab, ‘kay? I really want to like this show. I know a lot of people who, at least according to Facebook, like this show. And the content is almost always interesting. So why, why, WHY must they spoon-feed it to us in such mimsy morsels of chipper condescension?

They’re always self-interrupting and overlaying quotes, asking questions to which they obviously know the answers, fake-chuckling and nyuck-nyuck-elbow-nudging each other in an attempt to be chummy and natural. All of which adds up to a kind of over-smiley BSing I can’t stand the sound of. Just tell it to me, people. I have an attention span and a functioning brain.

Finally, Solar. I always have to work my way up to an Ian McEwan novel, because they tend to be dark and violent and even nasty, and I have a limited tolerance for that combination. But the writing is so good that they’re worth it.

Solar is dark, not violent, and a little nasty, such that while being very satisfying it also leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth—intentionally, of course. I suppose that’s what happens when your protagonist is utterly irredeemable, although still somewhat likable. I recommend it, and I enjoyed reading it, but I can’t say I’m fond of it. That’s almost always how I feel about McEwan—except for Atonement, in which I fell in love with Briony.

Maybe that’s the issue with McEwan—few lovable characters? Or maybe it’s more of a general tonal chill.


Monday, September 13th, 2010

Reader, I read it.

And . . . I loved it, particularly the segments from the point of view of Patty, the wife/mother and primary character. Franzen does a brilliant thing where he has her write her autobiography, at the request of her therapist, in the third person—or rather, her therapist presumably doesn’t request the third person, but Patty can’t own her feelings or her story enough to use the first. And this third-person autobiography is therefore dripping in multiple layers of irony, but also sincerity, and also pathos.

It’s genius.

The rest of the book  is not quite so incandescent, but it’s all smart and savvy and funny and sad and compassionate about/toward people, not to mention super-readable with wall-to-wall Good Sentences and All-in-All Most Extremely Hard to Put Down. In fact, if there were no The Corrections, which I think is maybe still a  wee bit better (more cohesive, more of An Entire World), this would rocket up to favorite-book status and remain there indefinitely, I am sure.

Also, remember my distaste for multi-narratives? Franzen is the exception. Because Franzen nails each perspective into the ground with 150 pages of in-depth character analysis, never using a switch in perspective as a cover for cowardice or impatience. So while I always feel some grief at having to leave one character for another, I never feel cheated.

I do have a few quibbles with the book, mainly having to do with something rather extreme that happens to one of the characters—avoiding spoilage here—that isn’t necessary, and the overuse of the word “freedom,” which admittedly Franzen is looking into from every possibly angle, and finally with some overly tidy tying up of relationships between parents and child that either is a kind of denial on Franzen’s part or doesn’t get the space it needs.

And then . . . Why is Franzen such an uber-jerk in interviews? I keep hearing snippets on this NPR show or that, and I’m cringing, cringing, cringing. But what is it, exactly? Is it that he aspirates his final t’s? Is it that he always seems to be not really answering the question? Is it that he always seems to be lying, or at least not saying the real thing, the deep thing?

Saturday night on Studio 360, when Andersen asked him an admittedly difficult question about what percentage of his success is talent vs. work vs. luck, Franzen switched to the third person to talk about himself! Like Patty! JUST like Patty! Without, apparently, seeing the tiniest smidgelet of irony! And then he proceeded to chalk basically all of his success up to luck. Which he cannot believe. He can’t. Not when he works as hard as he does.

I didn’t hear the entire interview, nor did I hear the entire Fresh Air interview*—I sort of do and don’t want to, in both cases—but I wonder if he ever sounds genuine, undefended. I am also curious to know why he named a minor character in the novel Jonathan. Has anyone asked that? The character is not much, a decent guy who is a bit of a moral compass, but no one very memorable or important. So . . . why?

Questions, questions. And since I mostly can’t stand to hear Franzen speak, they will likely go unanswered.

*Okay also admittedly, everyone is setting Franzen up from the get-go. They’re all talking about the hype and asking him to respond, which is a hard thing to do. (Okay but what I would do is just say, “It’s weird, it’s fun, and I’m grateful my book is selling.”) Although Terry Gross handled it particularly poorly by preemptively making Franzen’s argument, or the argument she thought he should have made—i.e., not his fault. Terry! Be neutral! Go into the interview without a position!

Yes, I have beliefs about how everyone else should behave. It’s part of my charm.

Harry Potter and the Unsatisfying Romantic Relationship

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

I Netflixed the 6th Harry Potter movie for one reason: to see Harry and Ginny kiss.

Yes, I am a girl.

I’d also have been happy to witness a little action between Hermione and Ron. I’ve always been a fan of their relationship—a bookish, hyper-organized overachiever  and a happy-go-lucky goofball.

Oh, wait—that’s me and John! Or might have been, if we had met in high school. Where perhaps things would not have gone as well as they later did, or as they have for Hermione and Ron.

Anyway, the movie’s a dark, drab downer. It takes itself awfully seriously, and if your hook into the HP phenomenon isn’t the epic-ish battle between good and evil (yawn) but rather the thrilling vagaries of teen romance, there’s not a lot there for you. Excuse me, Director Person, but some of us need a little more than 2 seconds of lip-to-lip contact to compensate for 2.5 hours of whooshing spirit-tendrils, lightning-cracking, and wand-waving.

In other news, it struck me that Daniel Radcliffe is doing a fine job as Harry. That cannot be an easy role to play, as he has to balance the inanity of being The Chosen One with humility, bravery, confusion, and ordinary teen angst. Nice work.